Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Throughout the twentieth century (and, now, into the twenty-first) the mission of the university in America has been uncertain. Are young people to be educated with an eye towards adapting them to their environment, towards what is immediately practical, towards social reform, or with some other purpose in mind? Echoing Montesquieu's assertion that the principle of a republic is its education, former University of Chicago President, and noted educational theorist, Robert Maynard Hutchins, places these concerns at the center of societal formation and function. If a society is to be best, if it is to nurture independent thought and freedom of the spirit, then a liberal education must provide citizens with the capacities to be life-long learners and critical thinkers. Ours must become a society of the logos; of the dialogue, and questioning. It must continue to foster what Hutchins calls the Great Conversation.
Information is nothing without the understanding and judgment necessary to apply it. Supporting the highest human endeavors means that we must be given the tools to think for ourselves. Educational difficulties mount upon the foundational difficulty of our simultaneously shared humanity and individual difference. People are similar; people are different: this dynamic tension binds us together and casts us apart. Education shares this common difficulty with each of us every day - how are we to make sense of, and make peace with, the similarities and differences of others? Rather than serving as a further divisive force, our education can be the common ground which binds people together. By engaging citizens in the age-old discussions of our culture, by nurturing independent thought and the ability of each to explore his or her own physical and intellectual world, Hutchins argues that we can build a better society. By providing the foundation for a lifetime of rigorous, independent inquiry into our lives and the world we inhabit, a better educational system both brings us together and celebrates our differences.
Hutchins notes that "what is honored in a country will be cultivated there." We might add that what is cultivated there will be the seeds for the country of tomorrow. We might wonder if our educational systems and priorities reflect our values.? If not, whose values are they? Each of us as individuals, and together as a community, will reap what we sow.